Back in April, I learned about a development project that was unlike any other that I had come across. Kate and Joe Vacanti, owners of Wonder Coffeehouse on Ganson Street, were in the midst of embarking upon another project just down the street (next to Buffalo RiverWorks). The project? The two were tackling the repurposing of an 18,000 square foot malting silo – the former Kellogg Silo.
I met up with Kate at her café, before walking over to what will one day be called “Hope Rising Buffalo.”
The way it all came together is actually a very Buffalo story. The two struck up a relationship with Buffalo RiverWorks’ owner, Earl Ketry, who deeply believed in their mission. Ketry ended up selling the silo to the couple, knowing full well that their inspirational work had been “working wonders” for years.
The inspirational work that led Ketry to sell the silo has been well underway since 2009, when the Vacantis founded Let them LOL – a non-profit that concentrates on grassroots bootstrapping projects in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Projects like digging water wells and implementing agricultural programs. Their work in Sierra Leone has been so impactful to date, that it has resulted in the creation of a 30-acre campus – “Hope Rising Campus – it’s own little city” – with a new school, bakery, resource center, computer lab, an orphanage home, and a dormitory for at-risk girls.
But before they met Ketry, the Vacantis started working out of their house, before moving into a warehouse, then a volunteer center in Clarence. As the projects in Sierra Leone took on lives of their own, the volunteer team continued to outgrow the allotted accommodations. What started “simply” as digging a few wells resulted in the drilling of 130 wells that now provide water to 50,000 people. The Let them LOL program also provides maintenance teams that service the pumps… and the education to the workers who learn how to keep the water (and the hope) flowing.
“The first well that we drilled in 2010 is still getting clean water,” Kate told me. “The Hope Campus has 5 part time staff in the US, and 60 people employed full time in Sierra Leone. Our goal and purpose is empowerment. It’s not about us running the program in Africa, it’s about training people in one of the bottom 5 developing countries, who have little access to education. This is about as grassroots as it comes. The first year, the school opened with 150 students. We’re talking about malnourished children who were eating one cup of rice a day. We are there to put these kids back on the starting line, so that they can choose their own future paths. We are doing this through clean water, nutritious meals, health care, and education.”
Kate told me that the Buffalo team has been assembling meal packets that were researched and developed by a group of doctors that they enlisted (to ensure that they were as nutritious as possible). The packets contain rice, lentils, protein, and dehydrated veggies. Not only are these packets shipped to Sierra Leone, the ingredients are now being used to fortify Buffalonians.
“We figured that if we could help so many people in Sierra Leone, then we could do it in Buffalo too,” said Kate. “So far, we have given out 20,000 meal packets to local food banks and food pantries, to help feed our own refugee population. These are the reasons that we need to get our new campus established at the silo. This will be our new headquarters. We’re going in front of Common Council next week – we have the support from councilmember Chris Scanlon. Work on the silo is already underway – we are securing the sides of the silo, and the roof, thanks to an emergency permit.”
Aside from securing the site, the Vacantis have lots of plans for the repurposed silo. They will be embarking upon filming projects that will “connect humans to humans,” to tell the stories of humanity at its best. The film studio will be made available to block clubs and small non-profits that are in need of resources. There will also be a theater space, a music studio, art room, podcast studio, and other cultural and educational amenities that will empower Buffalo’s disadvantaged youth. This segment of youth includes persons with disabilities, as well as foster and adopted children.
“There are parents out there that could really use a place like this,” Kate told me. “Just think, they could drop off a child to work in our pottery studio, knowing that we have the knowledge and resources to take proper care of him or her, while they go enjoy a lunch at RiverWorks (or anywhere else). We are disability advocates who are accessible and inclusive. We are building out an interactive space to elevate the voices of all people. We will also have our meal packing operation in place at the silo, as well as offices for our volunteer work.”
Kate added that this project is also about the preservation of Buffalo’s architectural legacy.
“When I first walked into this structure, I looked up and saw the expanse of the silo,” she said [pointing]. “We saved the coffee house from being a parking lot (it was Firehouse #11). I knew that we could help salvage this important history. We renovated that building for 3 months, and the business survived the pandemic. We did it when people said that we couldn’t. Now, there are people saying that we can’t do this. It’s not a matter of can’t… it’s a matter of can, and will. It’s the story of our charity. That’s why we’re calling it Hope Rising Buffalo. If we could do it in the middle of nowhere, in a war-torn part of the world, then we can do it in Buffalo, which was once a forgotten space. Hope will be rising together across the globe. Where else would you rather be than right here, right now, in Buffalo – I’ve always loved this city. Now, we’re going to demonstrate that love.”
If you would like to support this project, click here. Or buy a sandwich and a cup of coffee at Wonder Coffeehouse, 323 Ganson Street – we’ve seen dreams built this way in Buffalo (one cup at a time), and we will see it happen again in this instance (just remember to take the Ohio Street bridge!)